The sky through three giant eyes

The ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer, which allows astronomers to scrutinise objects with a precision equivalent to that of a 130-m telescope, is proving itself an unequalled success every day. One of the latest instruments installed, AMBER, has led to a flurry of scientific results, an anthology of which is being published this week as special features in the research journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“With its unique capabilities, the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) has created itself a niche in which it provide answers to many astronomical questions, from the shape of stars, to discs around stars, to the surroundings of the supermassive black holes in active galaxies,” says Jorge Melnick (ESO), the VLT Project Scientist. The VLTI has led to 55 scientific papers already and is in fact producing more than half of the interferometric results worldwide.

“With the capability of AMBER to combine up to three of the 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes, we can really achieve what nobody else can do,” added Fabien Malbet, from the LAOG (France) and the AMBER Project Scientist.

Eleven articles will appear this week in Astronomy & Astrophysics' special AMBER section. Three of them describe the unique instrument, while the other eight reveal completely new results about the early and late stages in the life of stars.

The first results presented in this issue cover various fields of stellar and circumstellar physics. Two papers deal with very young solar-like stars, offering new information about the geometry of the surrounding discs and associated outflowing winds. Other articles are devoted to the study of hot active stars of particular interest: Alpha Arae, Kappa Canis Majoris, and CPD -57o2874. They provide new, precise information about their rotating gas envelopes.

An important new result concerns the enigmatic object Eta Carinae. Using AMBER with its high spatial and spectral resolution, it was possible to zoom into the very heart of this very massive star. In this innermost region, the observations are dominated by the extremely dense stellar wind that totally obscures the underlying central star. The AMBER observations show that this dense stellar wind is not spherically symmetric, but exhibits a clearly elongated structure. Overall, the AMBER observations confirm that the extremely high mass loss of Eta Carinae's massive central star is non-spherical and much stronger along the poles than in the equatorial plane. This is in agreement with theoretical models that predict such an enhanced polar mass-loss in the case of rapidly rotating stars.

Several papers from this special feature focus on the later stages in a star's life. One looks at the binary system Gamma 2 Velorum, which contains the closest example of a star known as a Wolf-Rayet. A single AMBER observation allowed the astronomers to separate the spectra of the two components, offering new insights in the modeling of Wolf-Rayet stars, but made it also possible to measure the separation between the two stars. This led to a new determination of the distance of the system, showing that previous estimates were incorrect. The observations also revealed information on the region where the winds from the two stars collide.

The famous binary system RS Ophiuchi, an example of a recurrent nova, was observed just 5 days after it was discovered to be in outburst on 12 February 2006, an event that has been expected for 21 years. AMBER was able to detect the extension of the expanding nova emission. These observations show a complex geometry and kinematics, far from the simple interpretation of a spherical fireball in extension. AMBER has detected a high velocity jet probably perpendicular to the orbital plane of the binary system, and allowed a precise and careful study of the wind and the shockwave coming from the nova.

The stream of results from the VLTI and AMBER is no doubt going to increase in the coming years with the availability of new functionalities.

“In addition to the 8.2-m Unit Telescopes, the VLTI can also combine the light from up to 4 movable 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes. AMBER fed by three of these AT's will be offered to the user community as of April this year, and from October we will also make FINITO available,” said Melnick. “This 'fringe-tracking' device allows us to stabilise changes in the atmospheric conditions and thus to substantially improve the efficiency of the observations. By effectively 'freezing' the interferometric fringes, FINITO allows astronomers to significantly increase the exposure times.”

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